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  • Contextualizing Prostitution in Benito Pérez Galdós's La Desheredada (1881)
  • Gabrielle Miller

Against the backdrop of industrialization and urbanization, the controversial issue of prostitution stimulated contentious debate in nineteenth-century Europe. The prostitute and her image, as Rita Felski has observed, captivated European cultural critics "preoccupied with the decadent and artificial nature of modern life" (20). In Victorian England, moralists, social reformers and medics disputed the proper response to "the Great Social Evil" (Walkowitz 42); the infamous maisons de tolérance of contemporaneous France, meanwhile, declined in number and popularity under the Third Republic as regulation became more problematic (Corbin 3; 215). As in the rest of Europe, female prostitutes in Spain undoubtedly constituted "marginal subjects" whose deviance from established norms relegated them to society's periphery (Tsuchiya, "Marginal" 14).1 In response to the growing influence of French and Spanish medical hygienists, however, mainstream perceptions of prostitution in Spain began to change in the second half of the nineteenth century: while the prostitute embodied many of the deep-seated anxieties about gender and hygiene reflected in contemporary social and hygienic discourses, both medical and penal reforms aimed to control rather than prevent the practice (Fuentes Peris 31; Labanyi 66-76).2 [End Page 403]

Reflecting such preoccupations and the literary influence of French naturalism, "la novela lupanaria o prostibularia" gained popularity in spain from the 1880s through the turn of the century (Fernández, "La prostituta" 10, her emphasis). As in other western countries, then, Spanish novelists as different as Pío Baroja, Eduardo López Bago and Benito Pérez Galdós explored the literary potentialities afforded by fictional representations of prostitution, its causes and consequences.3 Written at the height of the European debate on venal sex, Galdós's La desheredada (1881) is one such work that in Jo Labanyi's estimation "tak[es] prostitution as its emblem" (91).4 The novel follows isidora Rufete, a young woman who arrives to Madrid determined to prove her aristocratic identity, believing herself the illegitimate child of a noblewoman. Much like the eponymous protagonist of Zola's Nana (1880), Galdós's breathtakingly beautiful heroine possesses an insatiable appetite for luxury. Ultimately, both Isidora's unbounded desire and stubborn faith in her dubious claim to nobility drive her to a life of prostitution. While consumerism and particularly fashion afforded nineteenth-century spanish women a certain degree of agency (Heneghan 5), the young Rufete undoubtedly personifies anxiety-ridden social discourses that conflated lujo and lujuria (Aldaraca 67-88; Jagoe 86-97).

This essay will interrogate a recent trend in criticism of La desheredada that views Isidora's final turn to prostitution at the end of the novel as a defiant, emancipatory election that thwarts the systematic oppression of bourgeois institutions and assures her financial autonomy. In this vein, Akiko Tsuchiya has argued that through her pursuit of desire, Isidora self-consciously transforms her body into a commodity, laying claim to an autonomous existence as a prostitute that both "resist[s] . . . institutions and techniques of power" (30) [End Page 404] and asserts her independence and subjectivity. Jo Labanyi insists that despite the anonymity of prostitution Isidora ultimately becomes "her own dueña de su voluntad" (115, her emphasis) while Wilfredo de Ràfols argues that Isidora's choice will afford her "relative economic independence and freedom" (80). For Elizabeth Amann, the image of the prostitute in the novel constitutes a "symbol of liberty" against the backdrop of revolution (457). Similarly, Stephanie Sieburth affirms that in choosing prostitution Isidora avoids "succumbing to bourgeois discipline" and that in negotiating her fiscal worth, "she will be free" ("Enlightenment" 39). While these perspectives represent a crucial contribution to the field of Spanish gender studies and are persuasively elaborated along theoretical lines, such scholarship risks overlooking the concrete, historical realities of prostitutes who lived and worked in Madrid in the second half of the nineteenth century. This essay will foreground Spanish Restoration-era medical and legal discourses on prostitution that simultaneously regulated venal sex in the capital and perpetuated the view of prostitution as indispensable to the preservation of ordered bourgeois society. In choosing to become a prostitute, Isidora has not "lost her...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2165-7599
Print ISSN
0035-7995
Pages
pp. 403-414
Launched on MUSE
2019-02-22
Open Access
No
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